It seems there’s been some drama at the County Building. This time, it stems from the 250th Celebration of Queen Ka‘ahumanu, the recipient of a $100,000 grant from the County of Maui managed by Brian Bardellini, an executive assistant to Councilmember Alika Atay. The situation starts off messy: The funds for this event were proposed by Atay and inserted into the budget… then later granted to his executive assistant. The Board of Ethics, in an advisory opinion, said this was a conflict of interest incompatible with Bardellini’s county employment but added “The Board is less concerned if Mr. Bardellini acts exclusively as a volunteer” and concluded that given proper adherence to grant advertisement and application procedures there would be no violation of the Code of Ethics.
While there was an inquiry into the grant from a group called ‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu Hana Chapter, the group declined to submit an application after learning about Bardellini’s application for the whole grant as the organization “250th Celebration of Queen Ka‘ahumanu.” Bardellini was awarded the grant, and the event which celebrated Queen Ka‘ahumanu’s 250th birthday took place at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on March 23, 2018 with featured cultural events, Hawaiian music, food, and other entertainment.
In the two weeks leading up to the event, the Office of Economic Development made two disbursements of funds to Bardellini, one on March 13 totalling $24,106 and another on March 20 of $29,046. The funds, OED testified to the Budget and Finance Committee, were rushed to “accommodate the upcoming events.” After the event, however, OED requested supporting documents for all transactions and payments in past and upcoming invoices. On May 28, Bardellini requested reimbursement for his third invoice which totaled $36,489. In documents provided to the committee, OED Director Teena Rasmussen responded to the request on June 7, saying in an email “As soon as we have ALL the requested information we will be able to process the next payment.”
At the same time, the documents show Rasmussen was involved in discussions with Claudia Kalaola, the event coordinator of ‘Ahanui Ka‘ahumanu Hana Chapter, a vendor who claimed to be awaiting payment for services provided at the event. “While he was so anxious to get the grant now he can’t find the time to do final reports,” she wrote in an email dated May 12 and forwarded to OED, adding “I turned in all Hana invoices and reports to him a week after the Wailuku event and yes, everyone’s invoices will be 60 days old in just a few days.”
In June 25 testimony, Rasmussen added to OED’s reasons for not dispersing funds to Bardellini: “The payment for Invoice #3 has not been paid because we received word from multiple parties that they have not been paid. We want to see those issues cleared up before we make additional payments to the grantee.”
On July 31, Rasmussen sent an updated list of inquiries to Bardellini regarding invoices 1-3. Bardellini told OED that he would respond to all requests by Sept. 30. As of the Oct. 16 meeting, a number of responses were still missing, Rasmussen said. “He provided front copies for only 16 out of 44 checks. All requests for invoices for hours worked and hourly rates were dismissed,” she testified. “He said, ‘We do not book our vendors by an hourly rate.’ OED has no way of knowing whether the amounts charged by the vendors were reasonable for the hours worked or services provided.”
Additionally, a hard drive, laser printer, and stock photography were included in materials purchased that needed to be handed over to the county. Bardellini said the materials would be returned when the county pays shipping and handling. Other requests and responses amount to he-said, she-said, including a video that is claimed to have already been delivered and an oil painting that is claimed to have been approved as part of the program. Some responses were flatly answered, such as requests for phone numbers.
Yet, on Oct. 12, unsatisfied by Bardellini’s responses, the county terminated the grant and allowed any unpaid vendors to invoice the OED directly. To Atay’s camp, this termination was wrongful and the latest in a number of politically driven attacks on his campaign.
“On June 7, 2018 OED took almost [two] months to send questions promised to Mr. Bardellini that same day,” Atay said in an Oct. 19 statement. “Mayor Alan Arakawa, OED, Teena Rasmussen, Riki Hokama, Mike White, Sandy Baz and Jeremiah Savage were being investigated by our office for fraud, misappropriation of public funds, and breaches of the public trust doctrine prior to Mr. Bardellini applying for this grant. OED intentionally and fraudulently withheld funds from the grantee. Without those funds, Mr. Bardellini was unable to pay the remaining vendors, including many Hana vendors.”
Indeed, by July 31, the only outstanding proof of payment reported by OED was for the MACC, and unpaid vendors included on invoices 3 and 4 couldn’t be paid with the funds withheld. OED claims $7,500 was disbursed to pay the MACC before the celebration with only the $2,000 deposit verified, while Bardellini maintains that a change in cost following ticket sales requires further invoices to rectify. However, the increase of $85 from the estimated and invoiced cost of $7,500 does not explain the entire $2,261 remaining balance owed to the MACC.
The waters get murkier. While testifiers supported Claudia Kalaola’s experience planning successful events, some of the charges she invoiced to Bardellini which were unpaid and warranted OED’s scrutiny of the grant may not have been approved by Bardellini. In an email to Kalaola, Rasmussen wrote, “Brian tells us that some of what you have been asking for was never authorized. Unfortunately that will have to be settled between the two of you. I have asked Brian to submit to us all of the minutes of your meetings for this organization to show us what the board of directors actually approved for expenditures.”
Further, in a statement from Oct. 15, 250th Celebration of Queen Kaahumanu said “We have evidence to support that Ms. Kalaola (and three other board members she has influence over) have breached HRS 414D on several occasions, some breaches of which may be a Class C felony. These board members have been put on notice and asked to return the monies spent on unallowable expenses.”
Atay detailed other personal conflicts that could be contributing to the perceived attacks on his campaign. “We have filed several complaints against chief counsel Pat Wong based on this biased and lack of service which resulted in his officially conflicting out from representing me any further,” Atay said. “As your elected official, I have been denied the support of taxpayer funded attorneys for the duration of my term.”
The grant ordeal is “evidence of a well-planned and a coordinated strategy to discredit me and my staff and sway the upcoming election to maintain an old guard majority,” Atay stated, citing the coinciding of the public grant meeting date with the mailout date for absentee ballots.
Bardellini is now being advised by a CPA and receiving counsel from attorney Shawn Luiz, who is also representing Trinette Furtado and Alika Atay in the absence of conflict counsel. “I urge all government officials and their staff to cease and desist from using the news as a vehicle to spread false and defamatory statements regarding my clients,” Luiz said in a written statement to the Budget and Finance Committee, adding, “The County is now officially on notice for potential liability that could result in tort claims.”
Atay filed a motion to enter an executive session at the committee meeting to sort out details in a closed meeting. Committee Chair Riki Hokama denied the motion, so expect to hear more of this soon.
Mayor Arakawa unleashed the latest salvo on Oct. 25, filing an ethics complaint against Atay for sending a statement regarding the grant en-masse over the county email system. “In the complaint, Arakawa wrote that Atay made unfounded allegations against numerous people including himself,” reported the Maui News, adding “He argued that Atay violated county law by using email addresses in the county email system, which were acquired in the course of his official duties, and sent out the mass email for his personal gain.” Atay defended himself on Facebook citing his right to freedom of speech.
Yup, this definitely isn’t over.
Discussion 11/2/2018: Have you experienced county officials carrying out their duties with inappropriate political/personal bias?
This week we talked about the controversy surrounding the grant given to 250th Celebration of Queen Ka‘ahumanu, and Atay’s rebuttal that the grant was wrongfully terminated as part of a coordinated, personal, and politically motivated attack.
See our article: https://mauitime.com/news/politics/county-vs-atay/
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